The cigarette packaging as image

For most consumer products, packaging has become an important component of overall marketing strategy. Traditionally, the primary function of a package was to simply contain and protect the product. However, factors such as increased competition and clutter on the retail store shelf have meant that for most products, packaging must perform many sales tasks, such as attracting attention, describing the product, and helping to make the sale. The often cited “four Ps” of marketing—price, promotion, product, and placement—are concepts that summarise the domains of marketing strategy. As a crucial part of the both the product and promotion, packaging assists consumers to select among other relatively homogenous products.

Cigarette packaging is no exception. In the case of cigarettes,however, packaging is even more critical for several reasons.Firstly, unlike many other products where the packaging is discardedafter opening, smokers generally retain the cigarette pack untilthe cigarettes are used and keep the pack close by or on theirperson. Thus, cigarette packs are constantly being taken outand opened, as well as being left on public display during use.In this way, cigarette packaging can act as an advertisement.A previous front cover of this journal and accompanying coveressay underlined the importance of cigarette packs as advertisementsfor cigarettes, especially in the face of advertising restrictions.This high degree of social visibility leads cigarettes to beknown as “badge products”. The use of a badge product associatesthe user with the brand image, giving the user some of the identityand personality of the brand image. One cigarette package designer,John Digianni, states: “A cigarette package is unique becausethe consumer carries it around with him all day . . .it’s apart of a smoker’s clothing, and when he saunters into a barand plunks it down, he makes a statement about himself.” Whena user displays a badge product, this is witnessed by others,providing a living testimonial endorsement of the user on behalfof that brand and product.

Secondly, cigarette brands enjoy the highest brand loyalty ofall consumer products, with less than 10% changing brands annually. Brand choices are usually made early during the life of a smoker,with a high concordance between the brand first smoked and thebrand eventually selected as a usual brand. Thus, once a consumerembraces a cigarette brand, it is quite unlikely that they willchange. Tobacco company documents indicate that cigarette companiesappreciate the significance of recruiting the young to theirown brands. Brand choice has little to do with the actualcigarette, but with linking the cigarette to aspirations ofthe smoker or potential smoker. As explained by Thiboudeau andMartin in a recent book on cigarette packaging, cigarette brands”embody the qualities we wish we had, the lives we wish we couldlead, the great escapes we wish we could make”. Brand imageis the factor that distinguishes between cigarettes and whichis important for young smokers in decision making about brandchoice. As described by Pollay, this phenomenon essentiallymakes much of cigarette marketing all about a battle for brandshare among the young. In this context, cigarette packagingcan be a critical communication device for creating and reinforcingbrand imagery.

Traditionally, advertising is used to establish brand imagery.Packaging reinforces that imagery, by either repeating designelements from advertisements on the package, or displaying featuresthat are consistent with the image advertising. Thus, when acigarette pack is displayed in a store, it is the sum of itscontents, the pack, and its associated imagery, that is purchasedby the consumer. However, when there is less opportunity toestablish brand imagery through traditional methods of advertising,as is increasingly becoming the case as advertising restrictionscome into force, packaging must play a more important role inestablishing and driving brand image.

Tobacco companies have long recognised the importance of packagingin complimenting and extending the imagery created by advertising.As early as the 1950s, some US$150 000 was spent on packagingresearch by Philip Morris, equivalent to around $1 millionin today’s terms. To facilitate Marlboro’s “repositioning” froma woman’s cigarette (“Mild as May”) to a man’s smoke in the1950s, “more than 120 different additional superogatory designswere created, rendered and researched. They were tested foreye movement, for associated characteristics, for emotionalimpact, for every attribute within the power of Vienna to defineor invent”. (Here, Vienna is a reference to Freudian psychiatry.)

The influence of packaging is so great as to persist even whensmokers are trained and practised in distinguishing betweendifferent brands of cigarettes when they are smoked. In 1980,British American Tobacco (BAT) investigated the influence ofbrand identification and imagery on subjective evaluation ofcigarettes. The study exposed a panel of smokers to a controlcondition where the brand identification was masked and packswere absent, a condition where brand identification markingswere visible on the cigarette but packs were absent, or a conditionwhere cigarettes were contained in the pack from which theywould normally be taken. The study found ” . . .even with theuse of panelists who are trained to be objective in their evaluationof cigarettes, that both brand identification and pack imageryvariables have a significant effect on the individual’s perceptionof the sensory attributes of the product.” The concept of”sensation transfer” from the pack to the product, sometimescalled the “halo effect” of packaging, is an important phenomenon.As will be later illustrated, it is a critical factor in creatingthe impression of lower tar cigarettes.

Packaging is also particularly important in promoting the trialof a new cigarette brand and this often occurs at the pointof purchase. As explained in a report commissioned by the Liggettand Myers company: “the primary job of the package is to createa desire to purchase and try. To do this, it must look new anddifferent enough to attract the attention of the consumer. Repeatsales will depend mostly on acceptance of the product, althoughpackaging features such as convenience in use and protectioncertainly play an important role.”

As advertising restrictions increase, the cigarette pack becomesever more important as a means of communicating brand imagery.Where usual advertising channels are available, packaging worksin concert with advertising imagery, complimenting the imagesgenerated by print or electronic advertising. However, in theface of advertising bans, documents show that tobacco companiesrealised that the pack would have to assume a much more prominentrole in communicating differences between cigarettes and, particularly,brand imagery. In countries where advertising bans are comprehensiveto the extent that point of purchase offers the only possibilityfor advertising, packaging is vital.

For example, in 1980, the senior vice president of marketingat BAT noted the dire importance of packaging where comprehensivebans on advertising were in place, as in Finland and Singapore,stating his belief that packaging would ultimately become thestrongest communication device. “In a future where increasinglythe product may have to sell itself through the pack, a fullerunderstanding of the way in which perception of such packs affectsperception of their contents is desirable.”

For some years, companies have been redesigning packs so thatbrand families are sufficiently similar to indicate membershipof the overall parent brand, and different enough to be ableto distinguish between the variants. This is well reflectedin an American Tobacco Company memo which advised that “An integratedpackage design can provide for a greater in-store presence.One package or carton color with integrated bull-eye designcan better compete as a `family’ in today’s cluttered in-storeenvironment.” In this way, the arrangement of packs at thepoint of purchase themselves become an advertisement for thebrand family.

Marlboro RedThe design of Philip Morris’ Marlboro pack represents one ofthe most successful and most recognisable designs in cigarettepackaging. Pack recognition research used by tobacco companiesinvolved the use of a tachistoscope containing a visual fieldonto which stimuli such as packs were exposed for preciselymeasured durations under controlled illuminations. Using thisinstrument, each pack was presented to the consumer in a seriesof short regularly spaced exposures starting at subliminal levelsand proceeding in sub-millisecond increments through the stagesof partial recognition of information on the pack, to the stageof full recognition. The test then measured the mean recognitiontime for each pack. One BAT document describing results ofpack testing using this procedure on BAT brands lamented thefact that “the performance of all the packs in the exerciseis substantially outstripped by the Marlboro pack which deliversa 3.16 millisecond threshold.” This time to recognition washalf the time achieved by any of the BAT brands. It goes onto say: “Consistent trends indicate that chevrons have highimage prominence but with the tendency for upwards pointingchevrons to draw attention to themselves and downward pointingchevrons to draw attention to that at which they point at.”

Thus, packaging plays an importantrole in creating and reinforcing brand imagery. In the caseof advertising restrictions, pack design assumes greater importancein driving brand imagery, and plays a key role in competingfor potential consumer attention at the point of purchase.

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